Has the world forgotten the terrible lesson of Kristallnacht?
The horrific persecution of Jews awakened the public to the evils of Nazi Germany; 78 years later a US president has been elected after exploiting racial and religious conflicts
On this day, November 11, in the year 1938, more than 30,000 Jewish men in Germany were rounded up in concentration camps, for the crime of one Polish Jew. The hot-headed young man shot dead a German diplomat in Paris, in revenge for the deportation of his family from Germany.
As soon as news of the murder reached Germany on November 9, two nights of anti-Jewish riots, killings, lootings and massive destruction of Jewish property followed. They had been instigated by top level Nazi officials, with organised operations led by plain-clothed members of the SA and SS, the notorious Nazi paramilitary units.
The horrifying incident was termed Kristallnacht, literally meaning crystal night or the night of broken glass, because of the enormous number of smashed glass windows of Jewish shops, about 7,000 in total. In addition, nearly all synagogues in the country were either burned down or destroyed. Close to a hundred Jews were killed in the two days of organised terror.
From 1933 when the Nazi Party took power in Germany, more than 400 decrees and regulations had been issued to restrict various aspects of their Jews’ public and private lives. Just a month before Kristallnacht, all German Jews’ passports had to be revalidated by stamping the letter “J” on them, to differentiate them from the rest of the population. The writing was already on the wall for harsher anti-Semitism policies to come, though few had expected it would be to the scale of the holocaust.
Most of Europe chose to look sideways. They failed or refused to see that it was the beginning of Nazi Germany’s plot to cleanse the nation of its Jewish population, in preparation for another all-out war.
One week before Nazi Germany declared the invalidity of all German Jews’ passports, Britain and France, with the mediation of Italy, signed the Munich Agreement with Germany. The agreement pushed Czechoslovakia into surrendering the Sudetenland region, where ethnic German residents were the majority, to Germany in exchange for Hitler’s pledge of peace. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain hailed the signing of the agreement by claiming to the British people, “I believe it is peace for our time.”
However, the horror of Kristallnacht turned public opinion around. They began to cast doubt on the appeasement policy adopted by Britain and France thus far. Chamberlain himself, while still struggling to hold Hitler to his words, also began to advise the French government quietly to prepare for war. But it was too late. Four months after Kristallnacht, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. The world was soon engulfed in another round of devastating warfare.
During the Kristallnacht, an American student studying in Germany witnessed the atrocities first hand. Reflecting on it, Robert Harlan wrote: “America, the land of freedom, still has much meaning, I’m thinking.”
Seventy-eight years on, right on US soil, the candidate who openly exploited racial and religious conflicts has just been elected president. It does beg the question: have we learned from Kristallnacht?
Lam Woon-kwong is convenor of the Executive Council